World Water Day: Climate change and flash floods in Small Island Developing States

Pluvial flash flooding (otherwise known as flash flooding caused by rain) is a major hazard globally, but a particularly acute problem for Small Island Developing States (SIDS). Many SIDS experience extreme rainfall events associated with tropical cyclones (often referred to as hurricanes) which trigger excess surface water runoff and lead to pluvial flash flooding.

Following record-breaking hurricanes in the Caribbean such as Hurricane Maria in 2017 and Hurricane Dorian in 2019, the severe risk facing SIDS has been reaffirmed and labelled by many as a sign of the ‘new normal’ due to rising global temperatures under climate change. Nonetheless, in the Disaster Risk Reduction community there is a limited understanding of both current tropical-cyclone induced flood hazard and how this might change under different climate change scenarios, which inhibits attempts to build adaptive capacity and resilience to these events.

As part of the first year of my PhD research, I am applying rainfall data that has been produced by Emily Vosper and Dr Dann Mitchell in the University of Bristol BRIDGE group using a tropical cyclone rainfall model. This model uses climate model data to simulate a large number of tropical cyclone events in the Caribbean, which are used to understand how the statistics of tropical cyclone-induced rainfall might change under the 1.5C and 2C Paris Agreement scenarios. This rainfall data will be input into the hydrodynamic model LISFLOOD-FP to simulate pluvial flash flooding associated with hurricanes in Puerto Rico.

Investigating changes in flood hazard associated with different rainfall scenarios will help us to understand how flash flooding, associated with hurricanes, emerges under current conditions and how this might change under future climate change in Puerto Rico. Paired with data identifying exposure and vulnerability, my research hopes to provide some insight into how flood risk related to hurricanes could be estimated, and how resilience could be improved under future climate change.

This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Leanne Archer, School of Geographical Sciences,  University of Bristol.
Leanne Archer